As the Chicago Fire continue to sit at the bottom of the Major League Soccer standings, the team’s run in the U.S. Open Cup takes more and more focus.
The Fire take on the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers at Toyota Park in a quarterfinal in the competition on Wednesday. Coach Veljko Paunovic talked about how important the U.S. Open Cup has become.
“This is our must-win game,” Paunovic said during a conference call with reporters on Monday. “We are truly motivated and very optimistic about this competition. It becomes our priority and this is how we are working.”
That statement certainly lines up with the lineup Paunovic played in the 3-1 loss at FC Dallas on Saturday. David Accam, Jonathan Campbell and Sean Johnson didn’t even travel for the game and Matt Polster was subbed off at halftime.
The Fire are in the middle of a stretch that includes five matches in 15 days. The squad rotation was decided well in advance of the trip to Dallas.
“We shared the plan with all the players before this stretch of the game started, before even the game against Sporting Kansas City (on July 13),” Paunovic said. “Everyone knows how much they’re going to participate and what the plan is from the fitness standpoint. I think we have to manage the load. July is a very hard month for us.”
That includes the goalkeeper switch with Matt Lampson playing between the posts in an MLS match for the first time since the May 14 loss at New England. Paunovic said he told Johnson and Lampson of the plan before the Sporting KC match that Johnson started.
“We want Matt Lampson to play also in the Open Cup game on Wednesday so we believe that for him it was very important for him to have a game before that,” Paunovic said.
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With the U.S. Open Cup seemingly taking priority, at least ahead of the match at Dallas, does this mean Paunovic is giving up hope on making the playoffs? The Fire have 17 points with 16 matches remaining. Last season, the first year that six teams made the playoffs from each conference, the cut off to make the playoffs in the East was 49 points. Even if that drops to 45 points considering the East appears even weaker this season, that would require the Fire to average 1.75 points per match the rest of the way. That would be the third best record in MLS this season.
In other words, the Fire would have to go from the worst team in the league to one of the best starting now just to be on the bubble to make the playoffs. Even Paunovic admitted it would take something special.
“Listen we never give up,” Paunovic said. “We will play all our games to win and that’s what we are doing. We are trying our best of course… We don’t give up on playoffs this year. I actually believe in miracles. I’ve seen them happen in soccer many times to me and even against me.”